In the middle of the summer 2013, around mid august to be precise, I had just returned to Paris after three weeks of vacation in the countryside. I needed to feel again the never ending pulse of the city, always filled with people, sensations, sights and smells. I knew that summer sunsets look great in Paris and as I love old bridges, I had decided to go look for a sunset around the Pont de Notre-Dame with a view on the Pont au Change.
With the help of the Photographer's Ephemeris free desktop application I knew the time and direction of the sunset. If it was going to show up. I arrived at the destination one hour early. Unluckily there was no sun showing up. I was starting to think that the hour commute had been made in pure vain. As I was there I started setting up the shot.
I had taken with me all what I needed : my Nikon D5100 DLSR, the trusty Nikkor 18-105mm kit lens, an entry level Manfrotto tripod, a no-name shutter release and my beloved ND 110 filter from B+W. I grabbed a few shots with different shutter speeds with the ND filter on. It is a very strong filter, stopping 10 stops of light or put differently transmitting only 0.01% of light coming through. I got the image below. You can see the old prison called La Conciergerie (now a justice court) on the left and Paris Plage (temporary beach) on the right.
The result was pleasing but there was no sun, no big circle of yellow slowly setting in the horizon, only thick clouds moving slowly and blocking the light. Boy, I knew little. The clouds were a chance, a fantastic one. The light coming from the sun finally got through and started illuminating them. The below was taken only 24 minutes after the first one.
Then, believe it or not, one single minute later. Yes, read it again : one single minute later, here's what it was looking like.
In this scenario you don't have time to mess up with the settings. I had set the ISO at 100 to minimize noise, aperture at f/9 to ensure a sharp shot with my lens and I was shooting in aperture priority mode, letting the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed. The ND filter was on and the focus manually set. Now going a mere two minutes forward in time, the sunset was at its quintessence, its finest beauty. People around me were all looking at the sunset and getting pictures of them with it in the background. I got in full manual mode and used a 150s long exposure to get the sky right and smooth water. Then in post-production I blended two version of the same raw file : one exposed for the sky, one for the buildings.
Around 13 minutes later the show was coming to an end, the night with the blue hour was coming in. The ND filter started to become too strong for the remaining light. This last shot was taken at ISO 400 to shorten the exposure. It was still severely underexposed and around 2 stops of added exposure was needed in post-production, bringing in a lot of noise. Still the file is barely usable, just good enough for the web, let alone printing it. It's a bit of a shame because if I had taken off the ND filter I would have got a nicer result for that last one.
All in all, it was an extremely rewarding sunset. I took photos during exactly one hour and twenty minutes, resulting in one of my best image so far. It shows that when you come well prepared, with a bit of luck, you can get a fantastic treat.